A Louisiana jury did not buy the motives of a crew member-turned-whistleblower, setting free the master of a Ridgebury Tankers ship who had been held in the US for 19 months, accused of dumping oily bilge water at sea.
Vjaceslavs Birzakovs, in charge of the 50,250-dwt Ridgebury Alexandra Z (built 2009), was taken into custody in September 2017 after a Filipino crew member provided evidence of the discharge to US Coast Guard inspectors in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
The Latvian master faced six charges: two each of conspiracy to defraud the US; violating the Act to Prevent Pollution from Ships; and obstruction of justice.
But at the four-day trial in the Western District of Louisiana that opened on 20 May, Birzakovs’ legal team was able to convince the jury that the seafarer was simply looking for a payday.
“We requested, and the government provided to us, a number of the whistleblower’s text messages and internet searches,” said Birzakovs’ attorney, Michael Magner, a partner at Jones Walker.
“It was very clear that [the whistleblower and another Filipino crew member] had thoroughly researched the potential rewards that whistleblowers get from the US government in these types of cases.
“[They] had gone to virtually every website where they listed all the different rewards and bounties that these guys would get. I think the jury was significantly offended by that and I was too.”
In the 29 November 2018 indictment, the government alleged that Birzakovs ordered the chief engineer to pump fresh water into a bilge tank to override computer systems that were preventing the discharge, then had the lines repainted and onboard record books falsified to hide his actions.
The incident allegedly happened during a voyage from Mexico to the US. The Ridgebury Alexandra Z called on US ports five times in the four months that Birzakovs ran the ship, including Lake Charles twice.
Magner said the chief mate “didn’t know what he was doing” in discharging the bilge water and came up with the idea to use fresh water on his own.
“The Filipino pump man, who was the senior-most crew member, instead of doing his job, instead of reporting it, instead of trying to address the situation, went along with it,” Magner said. “That’s why the discharge was done improperly.”
In screenshots of the texts provided to TradeWinds by Magner, the seafarer appeared to receive excerpts of press releases announcing six-figure to multi-million-dollar rewards for whistleblowers who provided evidence to the US Coast Guard. In replies in Filipino, the seafarer appeared to express gratitude for the research.
Birzakovs is expected to return to Russia, where he lives.
“He was a pretty stoic guy,” Magner said. “He’s the kind of guy you would expect to be the captain of a tanker that’s two football fields in length.
“I think it was significant that this guy put his faith in the American legal system and it worked out for him.”
In February, Interorient Marine Services, the ship’s operator, pleaded guilty to charges stemming from the discharge, paying a $2m fine and being put on four years’ probation.